As an animal lover, my father’s dream adventure has long been to go on an African safari, where he could see some of the world’s most majestic creatures in their natural state, in the pure wild. To help him fulfill this dream, my parents and I decided to make the trek to Tanzania, home of several safari spots, including the great Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater.
The Game Plan
I had worked with several partners to design trips for clients in Tanzania in the past, and I knew that, for my own trip, I wanted to use &Beyond, one of the foremost providers of luxury adventures in Africa and beyond. Not only do they provide exceptional service, but they also own the best, most lavish lodges in the country.
In addition to learning about &Beyond from my experiences designing similar safari adventures for clients, I had also gleaned that the best game plan is to spend about three days exploring the Serengeti, two days taking in the sites at Ngorongoro Crater, and then a few days relaxing on the beaches of Zanzibar, to wind down from all the exhilarating animal-tracking action. Indeed, this turned out to be the perfect plan.
After flying from the States to the Netherlands, my parents and I flew from Amsterdam into the Kilimanjaro airport. We arrived in the evening and drove about an hour from the airport, until we reached the city of Arusha, the gateway to the country’s safari options. One of the first things I noticed when we reached Arusha—in addition to the warm, humid weather—was the sweet, succulent scent in the air: the smell of the controlled burn of grass, to help protect against wildfires.
Following a good night’s rest at the Arusha Coffee Lodge and a tasty breakfast at the comfortable property in the morning, we stopped by the Cultural Heritage Center. While the center turned out to be more of a shopping center—featuring works from artists and goods from artisans from all over the continent—than a heritage hub, my parents acquired a bronze statue of a small herd of elephants that they shipped home and that now stands on their mantel, as a cherished treasure for generations to come.
The next step to get to our first destination at the Serengeti was to board a Coastal Aviation flight, which operates like an air bus, making several stops along the way. As could be expected the plane was small—we could look over the pilot’s shoulder to see each landing strip (i.e., dirt path) and the beautiful landscape below. We spotted zebras, an elephant, and even some of the local Maasai people.
For this reason, the flight turned out to be a fun experience in itself. I also quickly realized that the airline wasn’t quite as strict with the 15kg luggage allowance we were warned about, which was a welcome relief for me!
Upon arrival at the Grumeti &Beyond Lodge, we were greeted by a herd of hippos in the river. The deadliest animals in Africa proved to be very entertaining and quite funny. We loved watching as they splashed water on their backs with their small tails, rolled over exposing their small legs in the air, and made the sounds of a grumbling—or was it chuckling—old French man. I have to admit; my dad and I spent some time trying out our best hippo impersonations. I even loved hearing the hippos walk by my tent at night, as they ventured off to eat for six hours straight.
Speaking of tents, our accommodations were extremely comfortable. The “tents” are permanent structures; there is a fixed door on one side and a zip-up entry/exit way on the opposite side that opens up onto a patio overlooking the river. More extravagant than a simple yurt, our accommodations included a bathroom, shower, and other helpful amenities. (There are mobile camping options as well, for those who would rather pack up and move campsites each night.)
We were pleasantly surprised by the variety of (western) food options our guides served. We chose a buffet-style dinner two nights and ordered off the menu on another night. Our choices included grilled meats, veggies and fresh fish from nearby Lake Victoria.
After lunch on our first full day in the Serengeti, we embarked on our first game drive, which was one of my highlights. The first time spotting wild animals in the Serengeti is pure magic. We came upon a male lion basking in the sun, countless colorful birds, impalas and majestic giraffes.
At one point, I thought I saw a large rock. Upon closer investigation, however, I realized it was an ostrich laying on her eggs! She tried to distract us by running away, exposing her eggs. Once she ran away, we were able to drive right up to her nest, counting 29 sizeable eggs. (I also thought I spotted a giraffe later on, but it turned out to be a tree, an occurrence the rangers refer to as seeing an ALT, an “animal-looking thing,” which often turns out not to be the majestic creature one initially thinks it is.)
Now, if you’ve ever watched a nature show about the vast Serengeti, you know that your best chance of spotting the “ugly five” is to track down the “great migration,” the annual mass movement of wildebeests, zebras, and gazelles. Consequently, finding where the great migration is happening often allows you to spot some of the “big five,” as the zebras and wildebeests tend to attract the larger game.
Nonetheless, finding the great migration is unpredictable. However, given that it was June, our private ranger estimated the migration to be on the western side of the national park. Lucky for us, this was an educated guess—and a good one, at that!
We heard from other rangers that the migration was actually quite close, so the next day, we decided to make it a long one and try and find the migrating animals. On our way, we stopped to admire a pride of 15 lions catnapping under a tree. We came upon many zebras, antelopes and other creature along the way, ultimately arriving onto a field where thousands of wildebeests and zebras were going about their usual activities. It was a stunning site to behold! For hours, we watched their behavior, stopping to have a picnic amongst them.
Dad’s greatest wish was to see elephants, and our guide was determined to make this happen. Around hour 10 he found them: a herd of 42 stately elephants making their way across the plains, heading for the forest line. This was such a special moment, watching the baby elephants play, the moms keeping them in line and the young bulls making sure we knew to keep our distance.
After another day of driving to spot game, which was highlighted by our sightings of a pride of lions that we had all to ourselves and a cheetah hunting for lunch, it was time to say goodbye to the wonderful team at Grumeti who took such good care of us.
The Next Stop
We then headed to the Ngorongoro Crater, again via Coastal Aviation, making two or three stops along the way.
I have to say that once we arrived at our next hotel, Crater Lodge, it took my breath away! Crater Lodge is one of the top three most magnificent places at which I’ve had the good fortune to stay. The hotel felt opulent, yet the lavish décor fit right in with the feel of a lodge. For instance, the lodge’s restaurant was built around a huge tree, complete with a tree swing, yet a sparkling chandelier hung from one of the branches. Crater Lodge blends sophisticated décor and the surrounding natural environment seamlessly.
We dined overlooking the Ngorongoro Crater and enjoyed fires and hot baths in our rooms. Because the crater is 7,000 feet above sea level, it’s actually quite cold and often foggy, illustrating the unique climates of the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater.
The next morning, we set off early for a full day exploring the crater. It was amazing to experience how different this eco-system is than that of the Serengeti. At the crater, the animals are confined to and co-habitate in a small space, so you can take a photo of prey and predator in the same shot. We saw lions lounging in the road, countless hyenas (fascinating animals), hilarious wart hogs, and two very special rhino sightings, both of a mom and her baby. Since this is one of the most endangered animals on the planet, this was a really special moment for me.
We even got to see hippos out of water, which is a relatively unusual sight. Because hippos don’t have any sweat glands, they spend much of their time cooling off in the water. However, the day we visited the crater, it was cool enough for giant hippos to emerge from their usual bodies of water.
I’ve heard that safaris can be exhausting—and indeed they are! While I was very sad to say goodbye to all our new friends, we departed Ngorongoro Crater the next day, taking a non-stop Coastal Aviation flight to the beaches of Zanzibar.
Once we reached our 12-bungalow resort in Zanzibar, we kicked off our shoes and caught up on the World Cup matches. In Zanzibar, attractions include touring the main city in the area, Stone Town, or a spice farm, but we took the opportunity to simply relax and enjoy some nice meals by the pool.
We spent the next 36 hours resting, relaxing, dining and soaking up the sunshine. It was the perfect time to recap and reflect on all that we had experienced in the short, packed week. I was grateful to have this downtime in Zanzibar, so I could absorb all that had happened before getting on a long flight back home.
One important highlight of the trip that we all agreed on was the Tanzanian people themselves. They were so welcoming and kind that we truly felt as though we created a new family of friends in this magical country. There’s a saying that rang true in Tanzania: Come as friends and leave as family.
One word of caution for anyone traveling around Tanzania, though: Heed the locals’ advice and don safari gear. Loose-fitting khakis and bug spray are packing essentials!